Ah, food. Sometimes we love it (chocolate – yum!) Sometimes we hate it (mushrooms – yuck!) But always, we need it. And since we have to eat, a lot of people consider their grocery spending to be a necessary expense. The truth is, that’s only half true.

Partial necessities

Let’s say you live alone. Housing is a necessity, right? If you rent a 6-bedroom house for $5000 per month, is that a necessity? Not so much. Part of your housing cost is necessary, of course, like renting a studio or 1-bedroom apartment for $500 in a nice but not over-the-top building. Anything more is a luxury. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it simply means you need to view it as such.

Similarly, if you are a single person then spending $200 each month on groceries is a necessity, but spending $1000 per month is a luxury.

Necessity vs. Luxury: Where are you?

Take a look at your most recent grocery receipts and credit/debit card bills. How much do you spend on groceries? I’m not going to give you specific amounts you should or should not be spending, because grocery costs vary so widely. I see people on financial forums write about getting apples for 99 cents/pound, when a good deal by me is $1.69/lb. That’s because I happen to live in one of the most expensive parts of the country.

On top of that, we all have different dietary needs. I am small (barely 5’1″) and not very active, so I have lower caloric needs than a 6’3″ athlete. However, due to health problems I must eat 100% gluten-free and all meat and eggs must be organic, so that costs me more.

Most of us can afford to cut our grocery costs, though. What if you cut your current bills by 10%? How about 20%? It’s an easy place to make a big difference in the budget. So let’s get started.

Tip #1: Don’t throw out food

This is easier than you’d think. If you’re throwing out food that goes bad, then it’s a big waste of both food and money. Make a point of always eating leftovers before you cook or buy anything new. And freeze your leftovers! It’s easy and super convenient. When you’re tired and don’t feel like cooking, you can just pull some of last month’s chili or last week’s pesto sauce from the freezer.

Start today. Clean out your fridge completely. Get rid of that slimy spinach, moldy orange, and I-don’t-even-want-to-remember-what-that-is container. Start fresh.

Now, when you throw something out, pay attention to why you’re tossing it. Did you make too much and you couldn’t finish it all? Did you lose track of it and it got old? Did you have too much food in general? Did you simply not like it?

Consider those reasons and come up with ways around them. If you lose track of dates, every time you put something in the fridge, put some masking tape on the container with the day’s date. If you make too much food, put leftovers in the freezer. If you didn’t like it, well, you’ll know not to make that again. At every meal, take stock of what you have in the fridge. What can you eat in your next meal? Focus on the older items first.

In order to stop throwing out food, you’ll be buying less. You’ll be cooking less. No matter how good something looks in the store, you’ll remember that you have too much at home already, and that it can wait until next week. (Better yet, you’ll use Tip #2 and this won’t be an issue anyway.)

After a while you’ll get the hang of this, and you won’t need to pay as much attention. For now, though, every time you throw out food, imagine that you are throwing a $20 bill in the trash. You can’t prevent it this time, but make efforts to prevent it in the future.

Tip #2: Shop online

If your local grocery store offers this, use it. Grocery delivery is expensive, but it usually doesn’t cost anything (or very little) to place an order online and then pick it up at the store. The big advantage here is that you won’t have to worry about impulse buys. You won’t buy something “just because” or to “treat” yourself. Buy only what you need – nothing extra!

It’s also super convenient. You will probably save time. It also forces you to do Tip #3, which is huge.

Tip #3: Take 10 minutes to make a plan

To be honest, I only spend about 5 minutes on my weekly plan, but then, I’m not very creative in the kitchen. When you make a plan, you buy only what you need (which makes Tip #2 easier) and you don’t have any waste (see Tip #1.)

Planning is also healthier. I easily see that I’m eating too much meat one week or not enough veggies another week, and I adjust the plan.

Remember, planning doesn’t have to be complicated. I usually make the same half dozen meals and rotate them. After a few months I get bored and switch to a different half dozen meals, which also get rotated. Last week was turkey sandwiches and a really good, rice, veggies, and bean dish. This week I’ll make lentils for the first time in a while, and maybe a split pea soup, because it’s definitely soup weather. At some point later today I’ll decide what else to make, but there’s no rush, because I’m still eating my way through last week’s leftovers (see Tip #1.)

See? No big deal. Obviously planning takes a bit longer at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a huge time saver! Thanks to simple meal plans, I never wonder what to buy at the store, what to make, or when to make it. I always check my calendar when I plan my meal. If I see I won’t have much time to cook, I’ll opt for easier meals, maybe something I can easily throw in the crockpot. When I know I’ll have more time, I plan to make one of the dishes I love that takes longer. If I wasn’t planning like this, I’d never find time to make those other dishes.

Tip #4: Have no-buy weeks

This is super easy. Just don’t buy groceries for a week. Done.

Do you ever have trouble squeezing food into your kitchen cabinets? Do you buy something, only to realize you already have 3? It’s time to fix all of that.

For one week, you won’t buy any groceries except minimal produce. If your freezer is already bulging with frozen fruit and veggies, you’ll even skip the produce. That’s it. You’ll cook with what’s in your cabinet and freezer. Do this once a month for several months, until your cabinet feels more manageable. Then you might cut back to having no-buy weeks every 2-3 months instead.

This saves a lot of money in 2 ways. First, you don’t buy groceries for a week – obvious win, right? Second, you throw out less food (see Tip #1 again.) I once helped a friend clean out her pantry and we threw away more than a dozen items that were far past their expiration dates. As you start this week, check the expiration dates on everything in your cabinets and use the oldest items first. Obviously, throw out anything that is too old.

Not sure what to do with that can of artichoke hearts? Go online! I typed “artichoke hearts recipe” into Google and got a recipe that looks so good, now I want to make it (so maybe I should add it to this week’s meal plan!) Search for any ingredient and add the word “recipe.” Make a game of it. Use those kidney beans and spinach rice noodles and other random stuff that you’ve been unsure about. You will learn how to make fun new recipes and you’ll clean out your cabinets.

As a bonus, you’ll learn whether or not you should buy any more cans of artichoke hearts.

Tip #5: Read those price tags

Every time you buy something, check the price. And look at the prices of other brands. Then buy the one you want. Do this every time you shop, even if you’re buying things you’ve bought many times before. After a while, you’ll notice something.

Those prices start to stick with you. You remember them. You go to a different store and wonder why this costs $3.99 when usually you pay $2.50. You’ll see that the $8.49 item is only $7.25 in this other store – score! A dollar here and there doesn’t seem like much, but it adds up fast. You won’t even need to make a lot of conscious decisions. The choices will be come so obvious that when you notice a choice between $1.50 and $0.75, you’ll automatically grab the cheaper generic brand, because why not? Those canned green beans will taste just the same for half the price.

You might also become more aware of the difference in price between meat meals and vegetarian meals. Some people try substituting one extra vegetarian meal into their meal rotations when they look at prices, because it’s an obvious way to save. Do that if it feels right, skip it if it doesn’t.

This is one of those great subconscious things. Read the prices, and let the back of your mind do the rest!

All those other tips you hear about

You’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned coupons, sales, buying in bulk, or shopping at multiple stores. Those are all really helpful, and I think you should do them. That’s just not where I’m suggesting you start.

If you start with these 5 tips, sales will become obvious and comparing stores will be easy (see Tip #5.) Buying in bulk is great, but first you need to figure out what you really need so you don’t overbuy (Tips #1 and #2.) Couponing takes a lot of time. I think you can save a lot with it, but only later, after you have gotten a handle on buying less to begin with. Because after all, if you use a $1 coupon on a $5 item that you don’t need, you’re not saving $1. You’re wasting $4. I’d rather have you save all of it.

What will you do?

Please toss a note in the comments about which of these tips you plan to try first, your favorite money-saving grocery tip that isn’t on this list, or anything else. I’d love to hear from you!

And for more tips on how to save money to pay down debt and build up your nest egg, just sign up here to get an email every Monday:

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